I remember when the sulfite warning on wine labels was enacted. I was 20 years old, not quite the legal drinking age but I already had a bit of a habit. As my habit turned into a hobby I became more aware of the sulfite issue and thought it was pretty ridiculous since all wines have some SO2, even if none is added. Eventually, when the hobby became a career my thinking evolved. The longer I’ve been in the industry, the more I’ve come to appreciate this label though I think it should be more specific as there is a big difference between 25 parts per million and 150 ppm.
I also don’t think labeling goes far enough. As is true of packaged foods and other beverages, I strongly believe that alcoholic beverages should be required to list all of the ingredients including synthetic products used in the farming. In today’s world where people are increasingly obsessed with eating well and knowing the sourcing of their food, it seems like a no-brainer. Not everyone agrees with me though and as some of the dissension comes from respectable folks within the wine industry, their reasons caught my attention.
Basically, it started when Caroline Lestimé, the owner of Jean-Noël Gagnard, an organic and fantastic estate in Burgundy, posted an article Jeremy Cukierman MW wrote questioning the value of including ingredients on wine labels. Cukierman cited Eric Asimov’s March 6 column where he argues that wine should be treated as food and as such, the ingredients should be listed.
Cukierman admits that “Being more transparent to provide more accurate information to the final consumer seems logical.” Yet, he also believes that if winemakers were required to state on the label that they used a harmless product such as metatartaric acid to remove tartrates, it would unnecessarily confuse people and that in reality, tartaric crystals cause more alarm,[i]which is why a winemaker would use metatartaric acid in the first place. So in effect, does this mean you are giving the customer more assurances by not including the use of metatartaric acid on the label? “The right to be informed is crucial,” he says, “but not haphazardly.”
Lestime agrees. “They’re so many regulations in our day life that we need some space to breathe without stress, to enjoy a glass of wine as a piece of music, and not as a product listing all bad or good things which can happen by drinking it.” Point taken.
Cukierman also ponders whether the processes should be mentioned, as nearly everything that is done to a wine, or not done for that matter, will have an effect. Talking about SO2 additions, Ryan McReynolds who owns the Idaho based distributor Bent Frenchman Selections says, “There is a difference between a slight addition at bottling and additions beginning in the vineyard, through cellar work, and at bottling. The only way for an individual to know is through some fairly time-consuming work learning about these wineries, as the bottle gets the same blanket label regardless.”
Asimov seems to think that disclosing the winemaking techniques would be beneficial. “What would happen if wine drinkers began to take an interest in the winemaking process?” Realizing that it is a minority of consumers who will care about the methods, albeit a “significant minority,” he thinks this is a “good first step” to drinking better wine.
I asked a few of my industry compadres if they thought wine labels should be required to list the ingredients. While in general people support the idea of transparency, there is some concern. “I feel like anything carcinogenic, or potentially carcinogenic, included at any stage should absolutely be required (on the) labeling,” says McReynolds, yet he asserts, “Aesthetically, I wouldn’t like wine labels to look like a candy bar.”
If wines don’t have much in the way of added ingredients, let’s say just grapes and SO2, it would hardly look like a Nestlé’s Crunch. On the other hand, with more than 70 additives permitted and that is just post harvest, the label could end up wrapping around the bottle and these wines could put people off.
To this Cukierman says, “Listing the ingredients means running the risk of giving the awards of quality to the wines that are the least manipulated.” Asimov would probably agree with this since he thinks less manipulated wines are generally better. When I asked, Barbara Haimes, an instructor at the Culinary & Hospitality program at City College in San Francisco and veteran Bay Area wine and restaurant professional for her opinion she offered, “My knee-jerk reaction is yes. Then I wonder is this reply based on health and/or environmental concerns, desire for transparency, a belief that wine is food so should be labeled in a similar way or, is it a way to distinguish natural (whatever that means these days) from supposedly artisan and industrial wines?”
Lestime feels that the organic label and here I mean certified organic provides many of the guarantees people are seeking. The problem though is that Ecocert, as opposed to USDA Certified Organic, allows a significant amount of added SO2, up 150 ppm for whites and 100 ppm for reds. And Certified Organic wines in the US are permitted to have up to five percent of other additives, some which are synthetic. Both in the United States and Europe, certified organic wines guarantee that synthetic products were not used in the vineyard and this also goes for wines labeled as “Made with Organically Grown Grapes.”
This might be enough for some people but others are going to want greater transparency and really do care about additives that alter the character of wine. Some of these folks might be natural wine drinkers yet others may not and there is concern that they do not know what they are getting themselves into as natural wines can taste quite different from conventional wines. This said, natural wines are frequently a revelation both to seasoned wine drinkers and newbies. I do understand where Cukierman is coming from and the debate is not just about the transparency of ingredients but also the transparency of taste. As taste is subjective it is not that simple.
I can see where people in the natural wine world would argue that those who are against listing ingredients on the label are mostly conventional wine producers and their champions (chemical companies and the politicians they fund) and that they are afraid that consumers won’t buy their wines if they knew about all of the additions. I have no doubt there is some truth to this and honestly, that is part of the objective.
Maybe there is a way to compromise so that if a wine is composed of less than 1% of an additive or whatever is deemed safe or insignificant, it doesn’t have to be listed. Then again, a lot of this also depends on who is making the determination of what is safe and insignificant, and given how anti-environment, anti-transparency and callous the Trump administration is when it comes to people’s well-being, I have zero to no faith in their ability to fairly settle this.
People have discussed creating a certification for natural wines that would be much stricter than the organic label. Maybe this is the solution but natural wine does not have a set definition and this discussion can become quite political. One possible quick fix is for winemakers to take it upon themselves to list the ingredients in their wines. Eric Cohen of Justice Grace Vineyards works primarily with organic sources, adds very little SO2 and ferments with indigenous yeast yet he uses nutrients and discloses this on his label. Vinos Ambiz, a natural wine producer in Spain, list everything they do and don’t do to their wines. If there is not going to be regulation by regulatory bodies, perhaps the producers should take it into their own hands.
I agree with Asimov insofar as the listing of ingredients of wine on labels, one hundred percent. Soda, juice and other beverages are required to have it and so should all alcoholic beverages. But, how far are we willing to take it? It is good that we are having this discussion. As Cukierman said, “Debates push things forward,” and forward can mean moving in more than one direction. I don’t see any movement on wine labeling happening anytime soon but change starts at the grassroots level and if this is something that concerns you, pay attention, listen to all sides, participate and let those who are in power know how you feel.